Clattenburg affair is officially a crisis

Posted by John Brewin

John Obi Mikel is reported to be one of the players making accusations about referee Mark Clattenburg, with Ramires prepared to give evidenceGettyImagesJohn Obi Mikel is reported to be one of the players making accusations about referee Mark Clattenburg, with Ramires prepared to give evidence

The definition of bad PR is when a publicist or press officer becomes the story. The same goes for a football referee.

Graham Taylor famously called managing England "the impossible job". Judging by some recent recent performances, Premier League officiating has become just as difficult, and just as high-pressured. Who would be a referee? Those with such ambitions must be dwindling in numbers.

Mark Clattenburg's performance at Stamford Bridge was bad enough, but for his name to be the one to blow back open football's moral panic about racism borders on disaster. The game's authorities find themselves as hunted rather than hunter. The thought of a Clattenburg affair dragging on as long as the John Terry saga is chilling but those who would like to see the referees brought to book themselves are legion.

Every club has a referee whose head would be placed on a stake if certain fans had their say. Back in 1971, the name of Ray Tinkler was written into Leeds United infamy. Everton fans have never forgiven Clattenburg himself for his performance in a 2007 Merseyside derby while Clive Thomas is still loathed for mistakenly disallowing a FA Cup semi-final 'winner' in 1977. Liverpool supporters had Mike Riley on their dartboard for years and can now add Andre Marriner to a lengthy roll of dishonour for disallowing a Luis Suarez 'goal' on Sunday. By 6pm that afternoon, Clattenburg had joined the names of Anders Frisk and Tom Henning Ovrebo on Chelsea's hit-list.

Unlike Terry and Luis Suarez, there is unlikely to be a groundswell of backing for Clattenburg. There will be no banner proclaiming him as a leader and legend. Fellow officials are unlikely to warm up for games in Mark Clattenburg t-shirts. Referees are used to isolation, and need to operate from that position, but this affair could produce an unbridgeable fault-line between them and the rest of the game. There are many with axes to grind. Ill-feeling against referees has led to cranks on the further reaches of cyberspace and sanity crying conspiracy but there is a far more mainstream source of dissent.

Any attendee of a post-match managerial press conference will find that there is no hotter topic for debate than refereeing. In general, the victor shows magnanimity, while the vanquished reaches for excuses. Almost always, these will feature a refereeing decision. Occasionally, a winning manager might say that they have had the rub of the green this time, before reaching for past incidents when they were wronged by referees to show that they deserved a decision to go their way for once. All managers have a rolodex of such injustices to hand.

Saturday saw Mark Hughes complain of Arsenal's admittedly offside winner against his struggling Queens Park Rangers team. He may well have blamed the hot-headedness of Stephane Mbia, sent off for a childish hack at Thomas Vermaelen, but did not. Instead, he chose to question whether contact had been made by his defender's wildly swinging leg, a conceit that stretched his own dwindling credibility.

Post-match is not the sole domain of attacks on officialdom. The build-up to Sunday's Merseyside derby saw both David Moyes and Brendan Rodgers place pressure on Andre Marriner, with Rodgers speaking of decisions that should have gone Liverpool's way in matches long before he ever took office at Anfield. When such pressure is placed either side of a match, it is perhaps little wonder that mistakes are made. That referees are only human is a trite cliche, but a truism nonetheless.

The accusations against Clattenburg run deeper than those of plain incompetence but there are circumstantial edges to the affair that raise eyebrows. Chelsea are currently in the business of seeing their way out of their own racism storm. John Terry, no less, led off their 'Kick It Out: One Game, One Community' campaign with these words in Sunday's match programme: "We continue to be committed to eradicating all forms of discrimination from our game and creating a great atmosphere around the stadium." That Terry, suspended from the game for his use of racial language, is reported to have been part of an angry delegation to the referee's room in the aftermath of Chelsea's defeat rings an alarm bell. Surely Terry, whose punishment by his club is being kept a secret, should be keeping well away from trouble?

And then there are Chelsea's previous rows with referees. Bouffanted Swede Anders Frisk quit the game entirely after the February 2005 feud that opened with a Jose Mourinho-era Chelsea. Mourinho had accused Frisk of inviting Barcelona manager Frank Rijkaard into his dressing room at half-time during a Champions League tie. Frisk was cleared, Mourinho was banned, but the official hung up his whistle in the face of fans' death threats. In November 2006, following a game in which he had sent off Terry for a clash with Tottenham's Ledley King that had caused an extremely angry melee, Graham Poll was alleged, by Terry, to have used inappropriate language when dismissing the Chelsea captain.

According to Poll, Ashley Cole then suggested that Poll had told Chelsea players how he wanted to "teach them a lesson". Two weeks later, Chelsea backed down, and Terry was later fined for a false accusation. Poll, like Frisk, was soon an ex-referee. He retired complaining of a lack of support from a Football Association too happy to back a player named England captain just three months before. Both the Frisk and Poll incidents occurred after potentially damaging defeats for Chelsea.

This time, Chelsea appear to have the courage of conviction, and have three players willing to give evidence against Clattenburg. The issue that is hottest in football, racism, the hot potato that no-one seems able to grasp without getting their fingers burned, is at the heart of their latest complaint. Clattenburg, on FIFA's list to officiate at the 2014 World Cup, faces his reputation being torn to tatters. Racist referees do not get four- or even eight-match bans, the pitifully low punishments dished out to Terry and Suarez, though it is only right that those in positions of authority are subject to a higher penalty. He is also unlikely to be offered a new contract, either, as Suarez soon was. And even if not guilty, football has a habit of imposing stigmas. Fans have as long memories as the managers do.

However the Stamford Bridge allegations play out, the Premier League faces a hard road to redemption with its referees. It will soon be a job no-one wants to do. And for all the agendas and axes to grind, the game cannot happen without referees. Football would do well to remember that.

Follow John Brewin on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN

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